words to live by: the life you lead
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the pollyanna principle


pollyanna principle




Note: This post was originally featured on the site A Journey. To read the original two-part post, Being Pollyanna vs. Being Positive, click here

Whether or not you've seen the films or read the book, you're probably familiar with the concept behind the well-known little girl named Pollyanna. The character of Pollyanna possesses a life philosophy based on "The Glad Game," a perpetual game played by young Pollyanna in which she searches for the good in every situation she encounters. Pollyanna's optimistic look at life has been both acclaimed and criticized, but the film illustrates that her positive outlook had not only the power to transform her world, but also the power to transform the people around her and the entire town in which she lived.

Throughout the film, Pollyanna did her best to see not only the good in herself, but the good in others as well. To quote her, "Instead of always harping on a man's faults, tell him of his virtues. Try to pull him out of his rut of bad habits. Hold up to him his better self, his real self that can dare and do and win out!" Most people reading that quote are either nodding in agreement or trying to avoid being sick from the excess of positivity. Interestingly, most people have a very positive or very negative reaction to the concept of optimism that is filtered through everything Pollyanna does or says -- so much so that there's even been a term created for the idea that is Pollyanna, known as the "Pollyanna Principle." 


On Wikipedia, I found that the "Pollyanna principle (also called Pollyannaism or positive bias) describes the tendency for people to agree with positive statements describing themselves. Research indicates that, at the unconscious level, our minds have a tendency to focus on the optimistic while, at the conscious level, we have a tendency to focus on the negative. This unconscious bias towards the positive is often described as the Pollyanna principle." Not surprisingly, some view this principle as a negative thing, an overuse of positivity that doesn't allow for reality to be truly examined. Others view this principle as foolproof words to live by, a foundation on which all words and actions can be built.


Personally, I believe there is a difference between what people perceive as Pollyannaism and what it really means to be positive. By definition, Pollyannaism implies that you ignore or avoid dealing with negative events, looking only for the good and denying the bad. However, this is not the foundation of positive thinking (despite what many might believe). Positive thinking, unlike Pollyannaism, acknowledges both negative and positive events and chooses to focus on the positive aspects rather than the negative ones. Positive thinking means dealing with a negative event, allowing the appropriate amount of time for negative emotions to surface, and then moving on from the negativity by focusing on the positive.


Though it’s been awhile since I’ve seen the film, I believe that Pollyanna was a positive thinker. She didn’t ignore the negative, but instead chose not to dwell on it. Considering her situation, I’m sure she was combating a great deal of negativity within herself, but she make the conscious choice to focus on what was good in her life. However, media and culture has taken Pollyanna’s positive thinking and turned it into a negative. It’s convinced us that Pollyanna naively saw the good in the world around her without acknowledging the bad.


Whether or not this is the case is mostly irrelevant considering Pollyanna is a fictional character. What is relevant is what people in real life do. Those who choose to take part in Pollyannaism, as it’s been named, will choose to ignore the negative and only focus on the positive. This can be extremely delusional and, in my opinion, is not at all the same as positive thinking. To live a truly positive life, one must consider both the negative and positive aspects of life and then choose to focus on the good.


In addition, in order to live a positive life, one must begin by looking for the good in things. While negative elements of life should not be ignored, it’s not helpful to seek them out either. In the film version of Pollyanna, Pollyanna wears on a chain a quote from Abraham Lincoln: "When you look for the bad in men, expecting to find it, you surely will." I believe these words to be true. When you search for the negative things in people (and in life), you will find them. Conversely, when you search for the positive, what you find will be positive.


In my opinion, Pollyanna’s gotten a bad reputation for being overly optimistic and sickeningly positive, but I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate. The character of Pollyanna did not strive to ignore reality or avoid the truth of what was happening in her life. Instead, she chose to face the negative situations head-on and look for the good in them, as any positive thinking person would. She chooses the path in life that so few people walk down—a path on which positive thinking blooms and inspiration can be found in even the darkest of places.


When looking for inspiration, we should not look to the formulaic version of Pollyanna that has been perpetuated by the media. We should not aspire to think that everything is happy and perfect and positive. Instead, we should look to the true heart of Pollyanna’s tale and aspire to be like the little girl who, while coping with the negative in her life, continued to strive diligently to see the good in all that was around her.


What do you think? Is there a difference between being Pollyanna and being positive? 
Do you think Pollyanna's positivity has been portrayed unfairly in the media? 


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This is a great post. I've never seen any of the movies, but I understand what you mean. Being positive is a way to cope with the difficulties of life. Positive thinking is a habit though for most people. I naturally tend to be negative and pessemistic. It has not served me well at all. It is a leaning that has hurt my life. Positive thinking can really turn your life around, it has mine!

I think Pollyanna the character represents a rather lovely awareness of it all and makes the empowering choice to focus and expect the best while not turning a blind eye to the rest. I think she gets a bad rap because it seems inconceivable that it is authentic. I think of it this way, her life filter was clear and that allowed her to see things for what they are but not hold on to feelings that opposed her nature and outlook. When our life filters are clouded over we see through a lens that doesn't allow for such clarity of thought because we don't truly see the big picture. I am a fan of the term and will proudly wear the Pollyanna label any chance I get.

Thanks for such an interesting, well-thought out post. It was both a pleasure to read it and to think about the concepts presented. :)

Dandy - Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed reading this one. Positive thinking is something a lot of people struggle with (including me!) and I think few people realize what a difference it can make in your life. A lot of people think positive thinking is naive, but it's not about ignoring what is -- it's about acceptance and making the most of what's around you.

CC - Great analysis of Pollyanna! She definitely gets a bad rap because people don't believe someone like her could be real; they don't see the realistic possibility of looking for the good in everything. What people don't always realize is that positivity doesn't mean you're not recognizing what's wrong with the world -- it means you're seeing that and then choosing to focus on what's good in your life. I'm happy that you'll proudly where the Pollyanna label. She really is an inspiring character and, even though she goes through some really tough times, in the end she always sees the good around her. That's exactly the kind of person I aspire to be!

Actually, I think this is essentially the moral of the book. I always interpreted the ending as saying that, before, Pollyanna had just looked for the good in things and not truly thought through or dealt with anything. But at the end, she was faced with something she couldn't just dismiss, and had to learn to be positive ANYWAY, even though she couldn't choose not to deal with it.

Aurora - Thanks for your comment! You're right -- there's a turning point in the story in which Pollyanna must face some dire circumstances that challenge her positive outlook. Her ability to struggle with negativity and overcome it truly is the moral of the story.

I'm a fan of positive action over positive thoughts.

One thing that surprised me is that the key to optimism is not positivity, but simply non-negativity.

J.D. - Good points! Positive thoughts alone won't really make our lives what we want them to be; we also must incorporate positive action. And your comment about non-negativity also touches on another very important concept -- to live a positive life we cannot simply focus on what's good but must also use our thoughts to avoid thinking negatively.

I think you would really like the Mike Leigh film Happy-go-lucky, if you haven't yet seen it! :)

Stephanie - I'll have to check it out! Thanks for mentioning it.

Being positive is, well, a very positive thing..... But to someone who is suffering serious difficulties that are REALITY, encountering someone who is positive to the point of living in denial is a very frustrating, invalidating, nonsupportive force to encounter. Living with a life threatening disease, death of a loved one, or severe financial difficulties do not go away by pretending "everything is wonderful". People suffering tragedies need acknowlegement, and comforting, not pollyanna like denial.

Kathy - I completely agree. Being positive is important, but it's not everything. And it's also not ignoring the things that are happening in reality. Being positive means taking whatever situation you're faced with and making the most of it. No matter how terrible or heartbreaking something is, I really believe that focusing on the negative doesn't help the situation at all. Positivity is the element of life that incorporates acknowledgement, comforting, and true love for others.

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